wed 15/07/2020

Sondheim at 90: adults will listen | reviews, news & interviews

Sondheim at 90: adults will listen

Sondheim at 90: adults will listen

The composer-lyricist has left an indelible legacy

Happy birthday: Rosalie Craig's Bobbie turns 35 in 'Company'main picture by Brinkhoff Mogenburg

Here's an irony worthy of the work of Stephen Sondheim, an artist who clearly knows a thing or two about the multiple manifestations of that word. On the same day that he turns 90, namely today, Broadway is unable to host the keenly awaited American premiere, scheduled for this evening, of the gender-flipped Company that stunned London last year. The city's theatres there (as everywhere else) shuttered by the coronavirus, New York will have to bide its time until audiences can see the director Marianne Elliott's fresh take on the story of a Manhattan singleton, once male and now female, turning 35.

So even as one actual birthday is being properly feted, another belonging to the world of the stage is not. Life and art abound in contradiction, as very few creators within or outside the world of musical theatre have reminded us as consistently, and brilliantly, as the composer-lyricist who, on the occasion of the 2010 Broadway revue Sondheim on Sondheim, deliciously penned a song in his own honour entitled "God". One can only assume from whatever degree of isolation he may be spending today that Sondheim is well aware of the multitudes for whom that song title isn't affectionately self-mocking but comes very close to the truth, not least for the more secular amongst us. 

Jonathan Kent's `Sweeney Todd'My own acquaintanceship with his work came during my first year at university in the States, which coincided with the 1979 Broadway opening of Sweeney Todd. An easy train ride away from New Haven, Hal Prince's historic production became a theatrical magnet for me and various like-minded friends who developed an immediate fascination with this extraordinary story of a vengeful barber-turned-cannibal, Sweeney, and his entirely unlikely alliance with a smitten baker, Mrs Lovett, who is more than willing to sacrifice morality on the (often quite mirthful) altar of affection. I saw Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou give their iconic performances and returned on numerous occasions to the Uris Theatre (now the Gershwin) so as to sneak in at the interval  ah, those were the days!  thirsting for a cultural top-up. (Pictured above: Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball in Sweeney Todd, this photo and below right c. Tristram Kenton) 

Across the run, I watched as the original leads deepened their connection to parts that define them to this day, going on to catch various replacements (Dorothy Loudon and George Hearn preeminently) plumb depths of their own within an experience to which there had been no musical equivalent in my theatre education to that point. Having been weaned on Broadway revivals of On the Town and The Pajama Game, I was as unprepared for the power of Sweeney Todd as I then became fascinated, even overwhelmed, by it. And still am. 

Mark Umbers and Jenna Russell in 'Merrily We Roll Along'My parents had the cast albums to the earlier collaborations between Sondheim and Prince  Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures  which collectively amounted to a decade-long volume of output during the 1970s that won't be equaled again: the mechanics of modern-day production, not to mention financial exigency, work against that kind of history repeating itself, even if younger equivalents to the Sondheim-Prince pairing were there to be found. Another irony worth noting, I suppose, is that the only Sondheim-Prince show I was aware of from its actual inception was also their only Broadway flop: Merrily We Roll Along, which I followed from first announcement through to its closing Saturday matinee for the simple reason that I had a lifelong friend in the cast. We were classmates together at Yale, from which he had taken a show-related leave of absence that turned out not to be necessary. As is now the stuff of (unfortunate) legend, Merrily closed on Broadway after 16 performances. I shan't forget my closing-day visit and hearing the young cast's voices crack with emotion on "Our Time", a soul-stirring song under any circumstances. (Mark Umbers and Jenna Russell in a London revival of the same show pictured above.

As life took me across the Atlantic, my awareness of Sondheim only intensified, as one might expect from a country famously adored by the man himself and one that had, of course, also sent to Broadway the defining musical revue Side By Side By Sondheim, during which the great Julia McKenzie was billed (and Tony-nominated) as Julie N McKenzie due to the fact that an American actress had the same name. So it was both a pleasure and a gift to arrive in London only to find McKenzie and Sondheim forging their own special relationship across any number of shows, her superlative occupancy of Mrs Lovett in the National Theatre's Sweeney included. I can still see McKenzie's haunted eyes at the start of the 1987 West End premiere of Follies as her Sally Durant Plummer surveyed the ghostly space she was about to inhabit, not to mention the cheers from the house at the end of that show's 18-month run when McKenzie, having then departed the production, was revealed to have returned for the final few performances. 

The 2019 'actor-muso' production of 'Assassins'Since then, so much has happened: Merrily, once-dismissed, has asserted itself as an essential part of the canon and has been searchingly reassessed multiple times. So-called "actor-muso" productions where the cast double as their own band  courtesy directors like John Doyle or, more recently, Bill Buckhurst (whose Assassins is pictured above, c. the Other Richard)  have allowed new modes of presentation. And many is the director, rewinding from Marianne Elliott back through Dominic Cooke and Jamie Lloyd and Michael Grandage and Sam Mendes, the last-named the begetter of Assassins in Britain, who have staked pivotal moments in their careers on a talent exalted by McKenzie's heir apparent, Imelda Staunton, as the "American Shakespeare", but who remains a singular, unique entity all his own. 

So much rot has been written about Sondheim's work being calculated and cold, a fake cultural assertion at no point more resoundingly untrue than during a present-day climate whereby numerous Sondheim lyrics seem to speak to our innate desire for connectedness, whether we find ourselves metaphorically in the woods (as would appear now to be the case) or not. The Arts Desk starting tomorrow and across the week ahead will showcase commentary from various colleagues regarding a favourite Sondheim song, and why. My own choices change depending on the day, or my mood, but where better to close than with a pertinent link below of the luminous Bernadette Peters from a Royal Festival Hall concert from some years back at which I was lucky enough to be in attendance. The song, I think, speaks for itself. 

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